Just My Imagination Runnin’ Away With Me

Shortly before I saw Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations during its pre-Broadway run at The Ahmanson in Los Angeles, I had just seen Dreamgirls a few days before so I was in a Motown mood for sure. Coincidentally, one of the actors from this production of Ain’t Too Proud was in the audience at Dreamgirls and Michael Pettinato (the owner and artistic director of the Cupcake Theater) sang his show’s praises so I was pretty hype to see this show by the time it rolled around.

Before seeing Ain’t Too Proud, I didn’t really know anything about The Temptations. I knew a few songs like “My Girl” and “Get Ready” but was unaware of the history behind the group or most of the songs so I was really looking forward to this biopic musical.

Temptations Lineup Main stage
Photo by: Matthew Murphy

From very early on, Ain’t Too Proud is reminiscent of another all male group focused musical, Jersey Boys. This production deviates from the inevitable comparisons by driving the story through a single narrator — the group’s founding member, Otis Williams portrayed by Derrick Baskin. This is fitting since Otis is the only surviving member of the original group, the owner of the trademark name “The Temptations”, and the author or the book on which this musical is based.

Since the musical has a single narrator rather than allowing each member of the group a chance to tell part of the story, the musical unfolds in a more consistent story. At first I was concerned that I may miss the character building opportunities in allowing each original member a piece of the story, but The Temptations are such larger than life characters it’s easy to distinguish them and they each receive their due time in the spotlight.

Some pieces of the story seems a little unnecessary as Dominique Morisseau tries to tell the full story of The Temptations in a little over two hours. As a result the musical falls into that trap of having a fun, upbeat first act and a wildly dramatic (and traumatic) second act. The story’s huge scope also inevitably create patterns with their frontmen each falling prey to the spotlight first with David Ruffin and then Dennis Edwards as well as Eddie Kendricks that can feel repetitive. Don’t get me wrong, showcasing the toxic nature of fame and its corruption of the aforementioned men is an important part of the story but I would have appreciated a more narrow focus. That being said, it was cool to hear how some of the famous songs came to be and the highlighted differences between Smokey Robinson’s songwriting and Norman Whitfield’s songwriting.

The other bummer about having such a huge story arc to cover is the truncated versions of some of the greatest hits of The Temptations. Rather than a few minute number you would hear normally, there may be half a song or a tiny piece of a song rather than a full number.  While this allows for more songs from the Motown catalogue of music, which is great, small tidbits definitely left me wanting.

Enough about the structure and the story…let’s talk about those Temptations!

dancing gents aint too proud
Photo by: Matthew Murphy

These gentleman were incredible. As previously mentioned, Derrick Baskin helms the whole musical as Otis Williams. He may not have many standout solos but he narrates the show as a whole and he brings such a strong, level head to the group and embodies the motto of putting the group first rather than just an individual. Baskin captures the heart and soul of the group with ease.

Jawan Jackson as Melvin Franklin is mesmerizing. Though he may speak too much throughout the show, when he does he’s usually great comedic relief and the voice of reason. His deep bass  adds such a great layer to the harmonies, I definitely wish there were more occasions to isolate his voice from the others. Jackon’s voice is rare but wonderful.

James Harkness brings a subtle brokenness to Paul Williams whose descent into his depression and alcoholism is truly heartbreaking over the course of the musical. He has a beautiful voice, but his emotional presence throughout really impressed me.

Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks was my second favorite Temptation. His falsetto is angelic. Pope emerges halfway through as a real contender for the frontman spot. From the beginning, it’s easy to tell he’ll be trouble. He doesn’t want to join the group because he and Paul have their own duo going and he’s the star, but there’s also something inherently charming about Pope’s Eddie that you have to forgive him as he recedes into a jealous, dare I say bitter, man.

The real stand out of the production for me was Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin.

David Ruffin - Aint Too Proud
Photo by: Doug Hamilton

Sykes brings the slick dance moves and a huge, dynamic voice. He’s easily the star of the show. His presence on stage demands your attention before he even starts to sing. During the section of the show where they have kicked Ruffin out of the group for missing performances and rehearsals due to his gambling and drug addictions, his presence is sorely missed on stage so you can imagine my excitement to have him back at the end of the show. With a voice like Sykes, it’s easy to imagine why Whitfield would feature Ruffin as the lead in the group’s many singles. Sykes is a truly engaging performer and I’m looking forward to seeing him in many more shows to come.

The show as a whole is a really fun night out so if you’re at all interested in Motown music or The Temptations, you’ll probably really enjoy yourself. One last word of caution though, if you’re going to go try your best to get tickets in the center. I sat off center in my usual tickets and the projections on the set was blurry at parts and difficult to see the full picture. Some if it was really cool, like the Fox Theatre in the first picture of the article, but others were a little more difficult.

Ain’t Too Proud is closing September 30th at The Ahmanson but will be making its Broadway transfer in spring of 2019. Get your tickets while it’s still in town either through the Ahmanson site or through Goldstar. (Please note: as of this writing Goldstar is currently sold out of their discounted tickets for Ain’t Too Proud but they may add more during the duration of its run).

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